Skip to main content

Antony Roberts and
Debbie Vavangas

Dynamic partners for digital transformation

Antony Roberts

Head of Digital

Audi UK

Antony Roberts and Debbie Vavangas talk like old friends, the kind of creative partners who can finish each other’s sentences. Vavangas leads IBM Garage, a unique end-to-end model for accelerating digital transformation, while Roberts is the head of digital for Audi UK. The garage-car thing may be a bit of business serendipity, but when relentless innovators like Debbie and Antony team up, the extraordinary results are no accident.

Antony, you work for Audi. Debbie, you’re at IBM. How did this relationship start?

Debbie: Mr. Roberts here was the lead for an opportunity at Audi, and I sort of wedged my way into the process. We persuaded Audi that they really wanted to hear from IBM. We weren’t on their list.

Antony: That’s a true story. I didn’t want them at all. (Debbie laughs) Audi set out to find a new kind of full-service digital agency that could do everything to help us with our transformation — and I didn’t want IBM on the list. And yet, we went out with this RFP, and I got a response back from IBM which blew my mind — which was just like, that was it, they’re in. Then they pitched and it was like love at first sight.

Debbie: It was a perfect match! Our teams have been working together now for four years. It feels like a lifetime.

Antony: Thanks.

Debbie: I mean, it feels like a moment!

When you say “pitched” what do you mean? What were you offering?

Debbie: IBM iX is our agency and IBM Garage is our approach to put innovation at the heart of an enterprise to drive transformation. It’s an end-to-end framework to deliver meaningful, measurable outcomes. And IBM Garage isn’t about doing things to organizations, it’s about doing things with them.

Audi’s goal was to have the best digital experience, bar none. So what IBM pitched was how we would take them there. The pitch wasn’t about how we would build beautiful, glossy pages. It was about how we would understand what the best digital experience meant for Audi. What did it mean to their customers, to them as an organization, to their partners? What we were pitching was actually the journey and a beautiful blank piece of paper — my favorite kind.

What do you think creativity means in the context of your work together?

Antony: It’s questioning all the time. Which we do as kids. And then somewhere along the way, some of us forget to do that. We forget to ask the questions. And I think the people who are creators, creative people, never stop asking the questions, because they always want to understand. What does it do? How does it work? How can I make things better? In business transformation and digital transformation, do we sit consciously and go, “How are we going to be creative about this?” No. I think it’s just baked in.

Debbie: I don’t think about going around being creative. It’s not a skill I learned at school; it’s just how I think. I want to, you know, feel my way and learn through experience. I’m the person that wants to go on holiday by putting a passport in my pocket and going to the airport and saying, “What have you got that leaves in the next four hours?” So, just being free. Because it’s not really about the end, it’s about the journey and the experience. But I would also add that I’m a massive believer in measurable impact. It’s not just ideas for ideas’ sake, but ideas that can have meaningful impact on Audi’s business. If you can’t measure it, you shouldn’t do it.

What’s an example of measurable impact?

Antony: In the first year of COVID, the market was down 30% for car sales. Audi is a premium, aspirational brand with a huge global following. It’s an emotional purchase for people. But still, at a point where nobody’s driving anywhere, you’ve got to maximize every opportunity you can. We had the ambition to try and drive leads up at a point when the market was down. And this is when we all got together — virtually — and got creative. And we made it happen. The outcome of that was that while the market was down 30%, we sent leads up 56%. And that is a testament to the creative thinkers on board, looking at every opportunity, and making sure we maximize every little increment that we could.

How do you make space in your day for creativity?

Debbie: For me, it’s about creating brain space. As human beings, we’re often driven by lists. We like lists, and we like order, and we like labels. We put ourselves in certain boxes. I’m kind of anti- all of these things. I don’t want to be in any one box. I don’t want to have any one label. I want all the labels because I can’t decide. And so, for me, it’s about making sure that my brain has the space to think laterally. I just want to input lots of data, then give myself time and space to just let that noodle.

Antony: For me, it’s a physical space and it’s a mental space. Mentally, I remind myself that life often gets better when you don’t try to do things just like everyone else. You know, failure just means the end of one path and the start of another path. And that keeps my brain in the right space. It keeps me asking the right sort of questions. I also need to be in a physical space that feels as though it’s almost feeding that creative curiosity. So I surround myself with things that are creative, that remind me of previous creative endeavors. And that kind of reminds me that, “Oh, I can do this.”

What do you see coming down the road? What’s coming next in business transformation?

Debbie: I think the idea that innovation can be anywhere, and everywhere. It isn’t a department; it isn’t a separate division over in a different location behind a locked door so you can’t even see what’s happening. It’s a fishbowl in the middle of your enterprise where something different happens and everybody’s welcome. You know innovation and creativity are being unlocked in the deepest, darkest corners of operational floors and factory back offices and plants and huge retail organizations — creativity in every single person. Enterprises are beginning to unlock and harness those ideas and I think if you tried to do that even five years ago it just wouldn’t have taken flight.

Antony: Without sounding too grandiose, I think we’re possibly in the dawn of a new enlightenment, or a new kind of industrial revolution. You see these phases — we all work, we all go to factories, we all go to an office — but of course we don’t need to go to an office now and guess what, work still goes on. Technology has enabled that, and technology has enabled people to have more of a stake in their own destiny. Now there are opportunities for people who aren’t part of a huge corporation to have great ideas that fly — and that scares some people, and it scares some organizations too, but it’s incredibly empowering. Organizations should embrace that and look for these people and try to build cultures that attract that kind of talent.

Explore more